Fast-Paced and Not a Moment Wasted
I hate time wasters and Ashfall wastes no time, as tragedy strikes within the first five minutes. Sadly, the Seoul Cultural Center is the first to go. This isn’t the last statement the film makes as the scale of this natural catastrophe comes to blinding light.
The local name for the movie, Mt Paektu, is a mountain on the border between North Korea and China. It is, in fact, a live volcano and due for an eruption pretty soon according to experts. Of course, this makes it rife for a disaster plot.
All the key adversity characters are here – a military-grade explosives expert, a scientist, a government decision-maker and a villain who has to face himself and a team of nameless storm troopers ready to go down with the ship.
The two leads personify opposites – Jo In-Chang (played by Ha Jung-woo) is a military man, family guy and a leader who shows himself to be collaborative.
The other, Lee Joon-Pyeong (played by Lee Byung-hun) is a criminal, player and someone who puts himself first, relying on no one. They’re thrown together for the anti-apocalypse mission and spend much of the two hours thwarting each other, in true frenemy style. Byung-hun – who’s always good value on screen- also won a Grand Bell for Best Actor.
The political layer seems about right. You don’t need to be Korean to get the high stakes of intentional explosions. Especially when that bombing distance encapsulates South Korea, North Korea and China… with a US base thrown in.
Whilst what I know about North Korea can fill Crash Landing on You, it’s interesting to catch another view, even if under several centimeters of cinder. There’s some tongue-in-cheek humour tucked in too, like the taxicab with a nuclear bomb hanging out the trunk, sliding around destroyed Pyongyang streets.
Interestingly, there are two directors attached to this movie, Lee Hae-jun and Kim Byung-seo. They’ve previously worked together as writer and director on 2014’s My Dictator. Additionally, Kim is credited as Ashfall’s screenwriter. The duo cleverly play off societal statements like, ‘It all came to this because of an incompetent government that can’t decide its own fate, and you are part of that.’
This could easily be hurled at more than a few countries these days. According to The Economist earlier this year, the country’s transformation is indeed fragile. But the directors also share a note of hope and glimpse of strength, specifically in having the leader encourage an emergency plan with the philosophy that a ‘1% (chance of success) is within the realm of possibility.’
Both leads, well known and acclaimed actors in their own rights, display emotional highs and lows true to their characters and are very watchable. Joon-Pyeong is funny, even in translations. However, when the time comes for them to align, I didn’t quite get the feels.
One guy entrusts his family to the other, they eke out a few tears, confess their backstories, but still, I didn’t feel the bond between them. However, it’s an action movie, so maybe I’m asking too much.
Ashfall certainly feels grand scale disastrous with dramatic sets, eye-catching special effects and seamless CGI. There’s a scene early on where city-high buildings are collapsing; you can practically feel the shards whizzing past. Heavens, we’ve come a long way since Jaws 3. Equally, views of the erupting volcano and aftermath are beautifully done.
For the most part, the simultaneous segments of devastation in different locations and jumps between them stride nicely with only a couple of exceptions. The few that don’t work surface almost as editing errors as characters suddenly appear in new places without a lead in. But keeping with the throb of the narrative, things just keep on rolling and you quickly go along with it.
Music-wise, the closing piece is wonderful but I have mixed feelings about some of the score. In places, it appeared a bit trite and forced; too booming in some spots, too over-oiled in others. However, it was nominated for the 56th Grand Bell Best Music award, losing to Parasite.
Overall, as an adversity flick Ashfall maintains its velocity. From a character perspective, it was no Armageddon and there’s a couple of missed opportunities – but that’s really in the detail. The effects themselves are an eyeful and with a calamity that feels plausible, it’s certainly a bit of adrenaline-fueled fun.
Part of the line-up for the 2020 London Korean Film Festival, award-winning action film, Ashfall will be screened at select London cinemas in November. With fantastic CGI it would certainly be worth (safely) watching on a proper-sized screen if you can score a limited ticket.
Verdict - 7/10